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The Mummy Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Mummy Review
    Welcome to another entry in the Retrofest, folks. This time around, I thought we'd add a splash of colour to the proceedings - Hammer Horror's lurid Eastmancolour, to be precise. And their 1959 adaptation of The Mummy is one of their most richly-decorated and well-designed, as well as being a fast and aggressive spin on the much-filmed legend. Now, Hammer Films should need no introduction whatsoever. Their everlasting effect and influence upon modern screen horror is beyond question. They may not have completely introduced blood into the genre equation, but their delight in being more graphic took in much more than simply splashy red gore. Although their early years of prime-gothic chillers from The Curse Of Frankenstein in 1957 to The Plague Of The Zombie and The Reptile in 1966 - Hammer's Golden Era - were still relatively restrained when compared to their later output, the studio actively sought to throw the added titillation of sex into their X-rated movies. Of course, during this earlier and far more creative period, this just meant lots of heaving cleavage, alluring poses in candlelight and pouting, submissive damsels seemingly hell-bent on throwing themselves into the vile clutches of the degraded monster of the piece. As Hammer entered the wilder 70's, those cleavages were, more often than not, fully exposed, but during this quieter time, their starlets often conveyed a much greater radiance and dignity, somehow sexier when not dropping their bodices. This is debatable, naturally. And I can't deny a particular fondness for Ingrid Pitt, or Madeline Smith, myself. But I defy you not to fall for the exquisite Yvonne Furneaux who plays Peter Cushing's wife Isobel Banning in The Mummy, a woman who just happens to be the exact double for ancient Egyptian Princess Ananka - the one who causes all the mummy-trouble in the first place. A shot of her framed in the doorway, green eyes blazing, is one of the most captivating feminine images that Hammer ever caught.

    But, on with the story.

    The plot, in fact, couldn't be simpler. It is the age-old tale of Empire-stalwarts making their mark on the antiquities of the sacred, desecrating royal tombs against the advice of those who still believe in the powers of their deities. In this case, the esteemed scientific team of archaeologists, the Bannings - young John (Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) - and close friend Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) who finally discover the lost tomb of ancient Egyptian Princess Ananka, then manage to incur the wrath of her accursed lover, the High Priest Kharis (Christopher Lee), entombed beside her as her eternal bodyguard for the blasphemous sin of attempting to bring her back from the dead. Lurking about the excavation-site is the devoted follower of Princess Ananka's religion, the nefarious, fez-wearing Mehemet Bey (played with subdued relish by George Pastell), the human foil to the unstoppable rampages that Kharis, the reactivated Mummy, will go on to perpetrate across the quaint English countryside once the defilers and infidels have retreated back to their museums, their books and their private collections. Both The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula had been brought to the screen by the successful triumvirate of Jimmy Sangster's succinct and witty scriptwriting, Anthony Hinds' quick and innovative producing and the fluid, barebones-but-effective direction of Terence Fisher - and there had seemed no reason to alter that template for another classic monster adaptation. Relocating most of the action to the relative safety of rural English was a bold step, though hardly one that the trio had a choice in making. You have only to look just beyond the theatrical rocks and palm trees that festoon the Egyptian segment of the film to see some less-then-realistic matte paintings raised in the background of the excavation set. Although Hammer's costume gothics always utilised sets and soundstages, the studio couldn't have hoped to convincingly sustain a full feature set in an exotic foreign country such as Egypt, so it was back to the much more authentic-looking swamps, woods and taverns that we were all to become so familiar with. So, eschewing the gritty semi-documentary look that had distinguished their first two Quatermass films and X The Unknown (which was a Quatermass story in all but name), Hammer's move to the heightened milieu of stage-bound splendour continued unabated, forging a visual style that would serve them well for many years to come.

    Having said that, though, the interiors for the newly-opened tomb of Ananka are quite a joy to see, despite being so obviously mocked-up at Bray Studios. Although sparse in oddments, the colour scheme of rich golds, reds and greens is quite striking. I can't quite work out where the lighting comes from in a chamber that has been sealed up for thousands of years, though! This discovery sequence is the only scene reminiscent of Universal's original, as impatient old Stephen Banning recklessly reads out the incantations on the Scroll Of Life, all those years of painstaking Egyptian study cast to the desert winds in a moment of impetuous folly.

    “Ten feet tall he was, swathed in bandages. Come lumbering through that wood like a great bear.”

    “Who?”

    “You mean what!”

    The mummy as a monster has never really been that successful in the movies. Universal had a really good stab at it, but it is pertinent to note that the only film of their original series to have been any good, and also been popular at the box office, was one that barely even had a mummy, in the conventional sense that is, actually in it. Their first version, called The Mummy and made in 1931, starred hot horror property Boris Karloff, fresh from Frankenstein and a fine actor to boot, in a well-written and cerebral saga of timeless love and revenge. Yet this film's ancient fiend was quick to ditch his wrappings and move with the times, becoming a villain that was intelligent and articulate, and certainly not just the gruesome tool for an all-too conventional bad guy who was pulling his strings from the background. Problem is that Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep just isn't that scary. Their subsequent movies in the franchise, however, replaced the clever human guise of the mummy with the image that we all immediately think of when fools read aloud the Scroll Of Life and sarcophagi begin to open up behind them. But even as these lurching menaces were unleashed to enact their divine retribution - strangulation being the typical method of despatch - they became less and less frightening, so slow moving and so ...well ... short in stature were they. The mummy as something threatening to audiences still hadn't been achieved. Which is why when Hammer gained the film rights from Universal to actually remake The Mummy - it is vital to remember that their versions of Dracula and The Curse Of Frankenstein were not remakes at all, but fresh interpretations on the original books - they decided to concentrate on making him as formidable and as intimidating as possible. And, poaching the best elements from each of Universal's attempts, fashioned a streamlined chiller that felt fresh and exciting. Their mummy wasn't going to just stumble about, allowing his victims to die of old age before he'd actually caught up with them - he was going to virtually charge after them, smashing through doors and windows, wrestling apart steel bars and taking bullets like his bandages were built out of Kevlar. Okay, when viewed today, much of the new-look mummy's fear-factor has been diluted, but Christopher Lee's unstoppable giant is still the most fearsome of the bandaged brigade to behold. Just gape in awe as he rises from the grungy swamp to do his master's bidding, and tremble as he appears at the high barred window of the mental home as his victim whimpers pathetically from within.

    “He who robs the graves of Egypt, dies!”

    The violence of the piece is pretty raw, too. We may not be privileged to the fabled censor-baiting “buckets of blood” that would gurgle across the screen in Hammer's later outings, but the mummy's brutal throttling of his victims is still unpleasantly savage, Kharis's size and power awesomely exploited. His tremendous spine-snapping of another fool too slow to outrun him is a neat trick, as well. But check out the brilliant reactions that Christopher Lee has to his many bullet hits - those shotgun blasts are squib-igniting joys and the blink-or-you'll-miss-it effect of a multiple-gun fusillade as he staggers through the swamp is like hog-heaven for gun-geeks everywhere. And then there's the notorious flashback to the grisly punishment that poor, heartbroken Kharis receives back in the olden days - a vicious tongue-removal with a pair of tongs and great big blade. Whoa, that's gotta hurt! The famous original poster was drawn up before the film was completed and depicted the mummy as having a gaping hole through his stomach large enough for a village Bobbie's torch to shine through. This creative artwork caused Peter Cushing to come up the idea of having his character scamper up the bookcase in his large sitting room to retrieve a harpoon that is on display up there, and then plunge it straight through the mummy, in order to lend some tangible credence to a poster that was far too eye-catching for the production to change. The scene, itself, plays marvellously, clearly paving the way for the vast hordes of unstoppable, un-killable hulking monsters to come, from Michael Myers to the Terminator.

    “I've worked in dozens of tombs. Best part of my life has been spent amongst the dead. But I've never worked in a place that had such an aura of menace.”

    Peter Cushing, as always, brings impeccable grace and diction to the film - although he does look a bit iffy in his pith helmet during the excavations at the start. Lumbering around the richly designed sets of the asylum, Mehemet's mansion and his own palatial parlour-cum-battleground on his bad leg, smoking like there's no tomorrow, his gaunt face and soft eyes making him look pitiable and rascally at the same time (an appearance he would always exploit), Cushing never looks like the obvious hero-type. Yet, when the action hots-up - in this, as well as in The Abominable Snowman, Dracula and The Hound Of The Baskervilles, which was released the same year as The Mummy - he positively leaps into the fray with almost as much gusto as Hugh Jackman's gung-ho interpretation of Van Helsing. His famous run along the banquet table and cavalier jump to the curtain as Dracula's arch-nemesis is still a stand-out, but here in The Mummy, he dives over desks, springs up bookcases and grapples with Christopher Lee's imposing six-foot-four Kharis with such aplomb that even Errol Flynn would have been proud. Never adequately dashing, Peter Cushing makes the best of every role, nonetheless, his willingness to get down and dirty with the business of on-screen argy-bargy manufacturing a realism that most leading men of the day would hardly have stooped so low to perfect. And, damn, but he looks good strutting around with that big double-barrelled shotgun over his arm, awaiting his next skirmish.

    “It has often puzzled me about archaeologists. Has it never occurred to them that ... by opening the tombs of those who are sacred, they are committing an act of ... desecration?”

    As Kharis, Christopher Lee manages to bring enormous pathos to the part with just the lost look of longing in his eyes when confronted with Isobel's oh-so-familiar visage. Also afforded a chunk of dialogue and a bit of bandage-free performance with the lengthy flashback sequences, Lee makes his doomed suitor a much more rounded character than merely the typical monster. The actor has always professed a great fondness for this role and for this film in particular, saying frequently how he found the role one of great sadness. “The loneliness of evil,” was how he likened it, referring to the mummy as “the malignant hero.” Of course, he managed to apply this terrible sorrow to his interpretation of Frankenstein's Monster too, making the pasty-faced, pick 'n' mix man something to pity at least as much as to fear. This is where Hammer took direct influence from the old Universal horrors, which also went to great lengths to convey sympathy for their monsters. But, Lee still has the horror where it counts. When those eyes open and blaze with pure, undiluted rage and he takes to the moonlit woods on another murder mission he strikes such a nightmarish image that it is no wonder poor Michael Ripper's poacher runs, goggle-eyed to the nearest inn to quell his shakes with some murky ale.

    “All right, Inspector ... I believe the intruder was a mummy. A living mummy.”

    “A mummy? One of those Egyptian things?”

    Another of the film's strengths is the score by Franz Reizenstein. Expansive and full of sweeping Egyptian passion and lush romance, the music is vigorous and much more evocative than the scores that Hammer would later commission from their regular composer, James Bernard. Heavy on emotion and atmosphere, Reizenstein still utilises the genre prerequisites of blaring brass, driving strings and the homicidal lunacy of a xylophone to marry up the music and the image of such exciting set-pieces as Kharis storming through the French windows into the Banning household, or the frantic swamp-chase climax. Christopher Lee even introduces the full soundtrack CD by stating that he believes it is the best score ever produced for a Hammer film. It certainly has its moments.

    Fondly recalled in the classic Doctor Who And The Pyramids Of Mars, which featured robot mummies striding remorselessly through the beatific grounds of a country manor, slaying anyone who interfered with their master's plans, The Mummy still offers great suspense and energetic performances from all concerned. Eddie Byrne as the head-scratching detective trying to fathom out the murderous culprit on his patch is terrific fun. You've just got to love his montage of inquiries with the country bumpkin locals, every fact he gleans pointing steadfastly towards a killer nearly seven feet tall and swathed in bandages. “How many times did you say you shot him, Mr. Banning?” And the pure idiotic fun of a script that has people only connecting murder by mummy to the arrival in the neighbourhood of a strange Egyptian man in the exhilarating final third. However, Sangster's screenplay is fabulously witty - the exchanges between John Banning and the sinister Mehemet Bey, both baiting the other in a game of verbal of cat and mouse for instance, Cushing using his lines like weapons. Or the wonderful moment when Banning first sees the astonishing likeness of his wife to the image of Princess Ananka. “She was considered to have been the most beautiful woman in the world,” he proudly flatters her, before putting the boot in with a stinging, “Of course, the world was much smaller back then.” Priceless.

    There's no denying that Hammer have left an indelible mark on the horror genre, pushing its boundaries and crafting a rich body of work that created terror titans out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and a style that is uniquely full-blooded and decidedly British. Their legacy and influence could never, and will never be forgotten. And, rest assured Hammer Fans, I will be covering a few more of their films in the coming weeks - namely the Quatermass series, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Abominable Snowman and, perhaps what may be my favourite, and one that entertainingly broke their own mould, the ill-received Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Now that one really needs a reappraisal.

    But, coming up next in the RetroFest, will be Robert Wise's wonderfully eerie The Haunting.